The Department of Transportation (DOT) is preparing to amend its rules implementing the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 to lift an existing $2,500 cap on the amount of compensation airlines have to pay to passengers for loss or damage of their wheelchairs and other assistive devices.
DOT is accepting comments on the proposed rulemaking. The following letter was signed by members of the National Task Force Steering Committee and mailed on May 7, 1999, to the DOT's Docket Clerk.
Re: Comments in support of lifting the regulatory cap on the amount of compensation airlines are required to pay passengers for the loss of or damage to their wheelchairs and other assistive devices under the Air Carrier Act of 1986.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on proposed changes in the regulations under the Air Carrier Act of 1986, which currently limit to $2,500 the compensation airlines must pay passengers for loss of or damage to wheelchairs or other assistive devices. In our opinion, this limit on compensation defeats the purpose of the statute and its regulations. These regulations at 14 CFR Part 382.1 state:
"The purpose of this part is to implement the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (49 U.S.C. 1374 (c)), which provides that no air carrier may discriminate against any otherwise qualified individual with a disability, by reason of such disability, in the provision of air transportation."
Because wheelchairs, and assistive devices such as ventilators, can be so necessary to sustain people with disabilities, these individuals are often reluctant to risk traveling by air carrier for fear that their devices may be broken. Since these assistive devices are an essential part of daily living for passengers who rely upon them, they are put at risk when there is not compensation for the full cost of repair or replacement of a broken device.
In our opinion, compensation should be for the full cost of the repair or, if necessary, the replacement of the damaged assistive device. Compensation based on the depreciated value of the device could cause great hardship for the affected passenger. These devices are not fungible, and are often fitted to the exact needs of users. A passenger who received only the depreciated value of a damaged device would have a very difficult time finding a used or less expensive device to meet his or her needs. In addition, it would be very difficult for affected passengers to raise the funds necessary to cover replacement costs when compensation is based on the depreciated value of the device. Increasingly, health insurance providers and charitable organizations like MDA, which contribute toward the purchase of assistive devices for their clients, place limits on the amounts they will provide and how often they will provide funds for the purchase of the same device. Because these devices can be so expensive and because they are so necessary to the health, and in some cases even the life, of users, compensation for loss based on depreciated value would be a strong deterrent to air travel for these individuals.
We strongly recommend that compensation include the cost of a loaner device. A passenger who reaches his or her destination and finds that an assistive device stowed on the plane is damaged and does not work will need a loaner while away from home. While away from home, such passengers will have a difficult time arranging for repair or replacement of damaged assistive devices. Once home, a loaner is still important while the damaged device is being repaired or a replacement is being ordered and fitted to the user.
The Muscular Dystrophy Association's National Task Force on Public Awareness is a group of adults affected by neuromuscular diseases, who serve as volunteers to advise MDA about issues of importance to people served by the Association such as access to public transportation, including air travel. Based, in part, on our experiences as travelers who use assistive devices, we recommend that the regulations be amended to remove the woefully inadequate $2,500 cap on compensation, that this compensation be instead for the full cost of repair or replacement of the damaged device and that it include the cost of a loaner device. Hopefully, this standard of liability will lead the air carriers to treat assistive devices with great care.
The Members of the Steering Committee of the
MDA National Task Force on Public Awareness
/s William. Altaffer, Esq.
/s Jan Blaustone
/s Shelley C. Obrand
/s Chris Rosa